DeLay knew Abramoff arranged questionable junket

Prosecutors have e-mails showing Rep. Tom DeLay’s office knew lobbyist Jack Abramoff had arranged the financing for the GOP leader’s controversial European golfing trip in 2000 and was concerned “if someone starts asking questions.”

House ethics rules bar lawmakers from accepting free trips from lobbyists. DeLay, R-Texas, reported to Congress that a Republican advocacy group had paid for the spring 2000 trip that DeLay, his wife and top aides took to Scotland and England.

The e-mails obtained by The Associated Press show DeLay’s staff asked Abramoff _ not the advocacy group _ to account for the costs that had to be legally disclosed on congressional travel forms. DeLay’s office was worried the group being cited as paying the costs might not even know about them, the e-mails state.

Abramoff’s team sought to low-ball the cost estimates and DeLay’s office ultimately reported to Congress a total that was a few thousand dollars lower than the one the lobbyist provided, the documents show.

“We should give them the most minimal numbers for cost of the hotel (do not include golf), food and plays,” Abramoff wrote two assistants at his Preston Gates lobbying firm in an e-mail from June 29, 2000. One of those assistants, Susan Ralston, now works for top White House adviser Karl Rove.

In a follow-up e-mail to Abramoff, Ralston reported she talked to DeLay’s then-deputy chief of staff, Tony Rudy, who suggested numbers that could be used as cost figures on the congressional travel report. Rudy had gone on the trip with his boss.

“Tony said: $6,800 for flights per person. $300 per night for hotel, $120 per day per person for meals, $500 per day for transportation,” Ralston wrote Abramoff. Abramoff’s credit card bill shows some costs were higher.

Federal prosecutors have secured the cooperation of Abramoff and Rudy, and are investigating whether DeLay filed false public reports to disguise the source and size of political donations, travel and other gifts he received from special interests. Several witnesses have been questioned in recent months about the Scotland trip e-mails.

DeLay’s lawyer said Friday he believes the congressman’s office asked Abramoff, instead of the GOP group, for the trip costs because the group’s top executive was on maternity leave. He noted Abramoff served as director for the group listed as paying for the trip.

“The way I read this was that staff was trying to get it right,” lawyer Richard Cullen said of the e-mails. “His (DeLay’s) goal and his marching orders to his staff was to do it correctly. And I think staff tried to do it correctly.”

An expert on federal disclosure reports said the e-mails raise serious questions about whether DeLay’s office filed a false report.

“It clearly shows some members live in a dream world of high-class living and fictional accounting. DeLay’s office was part of the public deception. It makes you wonder if there are more filings as fictional as this one is turning out to be,” said Kent Cooper, the former chief of public disclosure for the Federal Election Commission.

Abramoff’s lawyers declined comment.

It was first disclosed more than a year ago that Abramoff arranged for two clients to pick up most of the costs for the trip and to route the money to the National Center for Public Policy Research listed in the travel reports as the sponsor.

Abramoff’s credit card bills show the lobbyist initially charged tens of thousands of dollars in air fare for DeLay’s trip to his American Express card. Cullen said he believes the lobbyist consulted with an ethics expert before making the payments.

The trip, which included golf at the famous St. Andrew’s professional course, and others like it have become symbols of Abramoff’s largesse to lawmakers and a focal point of the criminal investigation into influence peddling on Capitol Hill.

DeLay has steadfastly maintained he believed that the center paid for the trip as he reported.

The e-mails show that when DeLay’s office began preparing the required disclosure reports for the free trip, his aides asked Abramoff’s lobbying firm for the cost figures instead of the GOP group.

“Our financial disclosure forms from the England/Scotland trip are due tomorrow afternoon. … I would appreciate if you would send me your information,” a DeLay aide wrote Abramoff’s firm.

The e-mails show Abramoff’s team provided then-DeLay chief of staff Susan Hirschmann a final cost figure of $75,600 for the weeklong European trip taken by DeLay; his wife, Christine; Hirschmann; Hirschmann’s husband; and Rudy.

The e-mails stated DeLay’s office could attribute the figures to “the final bookkeeping efforts” by the GOP group. Despite the figure from Abramoff, DeLay’s report to Congress put the cost lower, at just over $70,000.

Ralston wrote she had a follow-up conversation with DeLay’s office. Hirschmann wanted “a name” of someone at the GOP group who would attest to paying for the trip and was concerned whether the center’s executive director, Amy Ridenour, knew about the costs.

“She (Hirschmann) just wants to make sure that if someone starts asking questions that Amy Ridenour knows about these s,” Ralston wrote.

Hirschmann did not return a call to her office Friday and an e-mail message seeking comment.

The documents show Abramoff initially put the airfare for the DeLay trip on his American Express credit card and arranged for two clients _ the Mississippi Choctaw tribe and eLottery _ to route money to Ridenour’s GOP policy group to cover the cost.

DeLay’s lawyer said despite the discrepancy in cost figures and the evidence Abramoff initially paid for the airfare on his credit card, DeLay has no plans to change his travel report to Congress. “I think the report was made in good faith,” the lawyer said.

© 2006 The Associated Press